Where’s the Lede?

I worked at the Anchorage Times for about three years. Alaska statehood pioneer Bob Atwood published the newspaper, and his staff kicked out three-to-five editions a day.

At the Times, a newspaper headline summarized the content of a story as succinctly as possible. A copy editor would proof a reporter’s story and often write and rewrite the headline several times. It was the copy editor’s job to see to it that the headline and subhead captured the essence of the body copy. After a thorough read to be certain the reporter had not libeled anyone, the copy editor shipped the story to the news editor for a final look.

It was satisfying for a copy editor to get the news editor’s nod as he sent a piece off to the typesetter. Copy editors proofed dozens of stories every day, starting at about 5 a.m. until about noon.

It used to be that the opening line or paragraph (called the lede) in a news story always carried the five most important and informative elements to answer the readers’ questions: who, what, when, where, and why?

In those days, a reporter structured the news story in the shape of an inverted pyramid, ending with the least important information at the end of the story. Often in the layout room, a reporter would check his story’s placement and scream that an editor had “butchered” his copy by snipping it, line by line, from the bottom up. Yes, the type was actually “cut,” with an X-Acto knife, to make space for a paying advertiser of, say, toilets or faucets. Advertisers took precedence over the news.

Publishers realized that most of their customers read the first couple paragraphs of a story, and seldom finished the whole piece. At the Times, it was anathema to “bury the lede” (spelled correctly) in a hard news story. Reporters were required to report the most important information in the first lines and keep their opinions to themselves. Editorial and op-ed pages were reserved for expressing viewpoints.

Fast forward about 30 years: Today a consumer of online or hardcopy news must take the time to read the whole news story to mine out the truth–if it’s there at all.

Many reporters drop the essentials into the middle of the story or at the end. Some may even feel a moral obligation to reflect their employer’s (or their own) convictions to assist readers in forming an “accurate” perspective. According to a reporter’s political persuasion, vital facts can be buried (intentionally or unintentionally) deep in the story. What should be written in the lede, is repositioned–so that the reporter feels like they are contributing an altruistic influence for the greater good of society.

I have witnessed the evolution of an industry where, in times past, journalists were trained to be, at least ostensibly, impartial. For the most part, not anymore.

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